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In A Changing World

July 2024
4min read

It is the unhappy fate of some men to stand as symbols of the human being’s natural reluctance to realize that the world has changed. They survive into a day that they cannot understand, and the simple fact that they do not understand it remains beyond their grasp; and since this is the case, the solutions which they attempt for the problems that the changed world brings them are completely inadequate. When these men stand in positions of high authority the results can be tragic.

Since the world has probably seen more sweeping change in the last 50 or 75 years than in any preceding half-dozen centuries, this inability to adjust to change —inability, indeed, to see that any adjustment is necessary—is one of the melancholy hallmarks of our era. An eminent example is the case of that distinguished British soldier, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.

Haig had many military virtues. He had integrity, devotion, long training in his profession, the sort of iron-hard determination that a successful general must have. He would have made a first-rate soldier in Wellington’s army; his trouble was that he commanded British armies in a war that resembled Wellington’s war only in the fact that men still shot each other. He believed in throwing massed numbers into a head-on attack; he believed in victory by attrition; above all he believed in cavalry—he felt that bullets had little stopping power against the horse, and that the role of mounted men would become more and more important in an era of machine guns, repeating rifles, barbed wire, and quick-firing field guns—and, all in all, he was somewhat like a man trying to solve a problem in the new mathematics by diligent use of the abacus.

In Flanders Fields: the 1917 Campaign , by Leon Wolff. The Viking Press. 308 pp. $5.00.

In 1917 Haig planned and conducted the tremendous six-months battle that has come down into history as the Passchendaele offensive. It cost the British armies involved in it 448,000 casualties, including 22,000 junior officers; it gained a few square miles of useless ground; it churned the whole battle area into a hideous swamp in which effective military movement was all but impossible; and it grimly underlines the fact that the First World War marked the dreadful end of an era. It comes up for careful examination in a genuinely first-rate book, In Flanders Fields , by Leon Wolff.

Mr. Wolff’s book makes it very clear that conventional military thinking in that war had collapsed. The western front ran from Switzerland to the English Channel in a continuous chain; nothing that armies had ever done before could be done on this front, but the generals could not realize this fact and they persisted in trying what had been done in the old days. Haig and the men like him grew furious at any suggestion that it might be possible to attack the foe in some place where he was not quite invulnerable. They would hear of nothing but the heavy blow at the strongest spot, and the mere fact that two years of experience underlined the folly of such fighting—after all, the Somme offensive in 1916 had exacted 60,000 British casualties in one day—meant nothing to them. In the spring of 1917 the French General Robert Georges Nivelle confidently promised a sweeping, decisive victory, launched the Champagne offensive, and wrecked the whole French army. Shortly afterward Haig, with equal confidence, attacked in Flanders. He had his cavalry massed in immediate reserve, ready to gallop through and exploit the breakthrough. Somehow, the cavalry never got used.

The recital of all of this makes Haig look like a very stupid man, but he was not. He was a good, solid conventional soldier; his difficulty was that all of the conventions he lived by were no longer good. Like every other professional soldier of his time, he was perfectly prepared to do very well in some previous war. The war in which he was actually engaged was like no war anyone had ever heard of before, and the necessary adjustment just could not be made.

If the generals come off looking badly in Mr. Wolff’s book, the politicians do not look very much better. David Lloyd George was prime minister of England at this time, and from the beginning he was convinced that the Passchendaele offensive would be exactly what it turned out to be—an unendurably expensive blood bath—yet he never could quite muster the hardihood to overrule Haig or to replace him with someone else. You get the impression, following the course of events, that the military command had grown all but wholly independent of civilian control. A Churchill, probably, could have pulled the soldiers back into line, but Lloyd George unfortunately was no Churchill. Like Haig, he was a man who had been brought up in a different world. He was up against something bigger than himself, and the slick politician’s equipment that he brought to the task was inadequate.

The tragedy of all of this is that in 1917 it was, perhaps, not quite too late to keep the war from being all-destructive. As Mr. Wolff remarks: “Early 1917 would have been a splendid time to stop the war. Both sides were exhausted. A military stalemate existed. The causes of the conflict were demonstrably trivial and implausible.” A negotiated peace in place of the Nivelle and Haig offensives might have spared the world much suffering, then and later. But the military commanders, as dedicated men, could see nothing to do but to go on fighting and force a decision. They had their way—Haig, Foch, Ludendorff, and the rest. The fruits of the decision that at last was forced may not have been quite what they expected.

In sober fact, the world as it had existed up to 1914 was in the process of destroying itself between 1914 and 1918. Of the great empires that prosecuted the war, not one survives in recognizable form. Russian tsar and German and Austrian kaisers have vanished forever, and the lands where they once ruled look very different than they looked half a century ago. The European community that once dominated the world drifts, fragmented, between Russia and America. France is still trying to recapture control over at least a part of her own destiny, and the British Empire is much thinner and weaker than it was in 1914. Haig did his best to defend that empire, but along the Somme and around Passchendaele it lost more than any empire can afford to lose.

Nobody meant any of this to happen. The fact that the technical processes of making war had got beyond the comprehension of the generals is merely a surface indicator of the difficulty that afflicted all leaders. The tightly knit, elaborately organized world of 1914 had drifted into an era of change, in which a long all-out war was certain to destroy the very base on which that world rested. Nobody could quite see it.

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